Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
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Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
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Happy baking season: The perfect chocolate chip cookie

It’s kind of adorable when cookie recipes say “Cool completely before serving.” Who are they kidding, really? They’re lucky if the dough makes it to the oven before disappearing by the spoonful in the name of “taste testing.” And let’s be honest, a warm cookie oozing chocolate may be one of life’s small perfections. “Cool before serving”–bah, humbug.

It's all worth it

So starts December, month of cookies and baked goods coming at you from every direction. (I know, we’ve barely finished the last bites of turkey and pie. Time flies when you’re having fun eating all the things.)

Simple ingredients
Butter, browned

I’ve said before I’m much more a fan of savory than sweet (pretty obviously so if you look at my recipe archive), but I’ll make an exception on occasion. And an exceptionally good chocolate chip cookie is just one of those occasions.

Add the egg
And we whisk

These cookies also happened to be the first use for the 6.5 pound bag of bittersweet chocolate I brought back from Paris. While you can of course use whatever chocolate you like, I’ve found I like the less-sweet dark chocolate. And while chips are traditional, I also prefer chopping up a big chocolate bar instead. I love how the pieces end up in varying sizes so I get a mix of nice chocolate chunks along with shards that melt into thin chocolate layers throughout the cookie. If you can find these fun little coin shapes, use them, or simply chop up a thick chocolate bar (I like Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars).

This smells exactly like caramel Flour goes in Don't over-mix

And of course chocolate chip cookies require nuts (preferably walnuts). If you leave them out…well I just don’t know why you’d do such a thing (barring a deathly allergy, in which case you get a pass).

More good stuff It is physically impossible not to sneak a bite at this point Nearly cookies

What I absolutely love about this recipe though is the browned butter. I know, browned butter has become as irritatingly trendy as pumpkin spice or the cronut (a terribly obnoxious word that will keep me from ever eating one, by the way), which is unfortunate as toasty brown butter just so damn good. Honestly after you mix the butter with the sugars, salt, and vanilla, it smells exactly like the best caramel on earth. (I will not admit to pretty much huffing the dough as I was stirring it. Nope.) And then come the aforementioned chocolate and nuts, and why are you still reading? Go. Make cookies. I won’t tell if you eat them before they’re cool.

Best chocolate chip cookies

(I also won’t tell you that it’s super easy to freeze this cookie dough in balls so you can bake one or two cookies at a time, because do you know how good frozen cookie dough is? Just trust me, the cookies will be even less likely to make it to the oven.)

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies
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Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies
Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)
Coffee toffee shortbread
Coffee Toffee Shortbread
Biscotti three ways
Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)
Fig-date swirls
Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)
Rye pretzels
Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.
Spice cookeis
Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…
Suprise Insides
Surprise Insides (from my mom)
The surprise
The surprise
Raspberry almond meringues
Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)
Thumbprints
Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam
Peanut butter blossoms
Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)
Snowcaps
Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)
Chocolate crinkles
Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Coffee, toffee, and chocolate–welcome to cookie season

Is the smell of butter and sugar and spices taking over your kitchen yet? If not, come on over to mine. It’s the beginning of the holiday baking season, and I just made 13 dozen cookies to bring to my first cookie swap.

Boxed and labeled

For as much as holiday cookies are an annual tradition for me, and given how much I like swapping stuff, you’d think I’d have been to a cookie swap at some point, but nope. So when the new Savory Spice shop nearby asked if anyone would be interested in one, I figured it would be too fun to pass up.

The challenge: figuring out what cookie I wanted to make 13 dozen of–tried and true or something new? While I was home for Thanksgiving, I pored through my mom’s cookie cookbooks, trying to decide between my favorite biscotti (my first instinct, a cookie I know and love), or one of a dozen new tasty-sounding treats. Considering I wouldn’t have time to taste-test anything, and I’d only have a day for baking before the swap, my mom in her brilliance suggested one of our cookie day staples, shortbread studded with toffee bits and drizzled with chocolate. They’ve always been one of the most popular cookies we’ve made, look beautiful, are relatively simple, and really, who can pass up shortbread?

13 boxes total

Being the overachiever that I can be, and having a day to kill before diving back into work and a jam-packed month, I figured why not try making my own toffee? A terrible idea, as I now know how easy it is to make.

Coffee cocoa nib toffee ingredientsToffee ingredientsBubble bubbleToffee should not be this easy

My search for a toffee recipe actually led me to Smitten Kitchen, her coffee toffee, and her coffee chocolate shortbread. Honestly I’m one of those people who actually dislikes the taste of coffee (unless it’s an espresso in a piazza in Italy, or a foofy sugar drink from Starbucks), but I love how it smells. It has a bitter warmth, very similar to the caramelized sugar and browned butter flavor of toffee or to deep, dark chocolate. Hmm, toffee, chocolate, and coffee you say?

Creamed and caffinatedShortbread dough

So with a little tweaking or a few existing recipes, I came up with this–coffee-flavored toffee studded with cocoa nibs, crushed and stirred into coffee-flavored shortbread drizzled with bittersweet chocolate. I know and trust my mom’s toffee shortbread recipe, but I love the addition of a tablespoon of espresso from Deb’s recipe. For the toffee, the espresso adds the right flavor boost to the sugar and butter, but I wanted a little extra chocolate kick. Enter cocoa nibs, unsweetened raw cacao pieces with a nutty crunch. When the toffee is stirred into the dough and baked, it creates a wonderful chewy contrast to the flaky, delicate shortbread.

SquaredShortbreads

I think these might just be perfect cookies to start a month of baking projects–a just-right balance of bitter and sweet, delicate and chewy, toasty and nutty, and of course plenty of butter. Oh, plenty of butter.

Rows of cookies

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It’s MAGIC! On ice cream!

Oh. My. God. Whatever you’re doing right now, stop. Find coconut oil and chocolate, melt them together, drizzle it over ice cream. Watch it harden, crack with a spoon. Eat. Be happy.

Hard to stop at one bite

Does anyone else remember Magic Shell, that chocolate sauce that hardened into a crunchy coating when it hit cold ice cream? Or the ice cream places that used to be at the mall that would dip naked ice cream bars into vats of chocolate sauce and then bins of your chosen crunchy bits, turning into customized little ice cream bars? Man, between that place (or Orange Julius) and B. Dalton for my Nancy Drew fix, I could have lived at the mall when I was in middle school.

Naked ice creamDrizzlingSauced

Anyways, flashback aside, this is that chocolate sauce and it’s so stupid easy it doesn’t seem right to even call it a recipe. Pour this over ice cream as-is or top with crushed nuts or rice crispies, make fakey ice cream drumsticks or ice cream bars and you will be a hero for any summer party. Or be your own hero and keep it all for yourself, screw sharing. Oh, oh! Or stir it into homemade ice cream right when it’s almost done churning for such pretty chocolate chip ice cream.

Everything is better with chocolate and nutsCrunchy

Most grocery stores sell coconut oil now, it’s all the rage. I like the unrefined version because it still tastes a little coconutty, but  buy what you can find or what you like. Use whatever chocolate you have, or like, too–I had half a bar of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate bar leftover from Christmas, so that’s what I used, but I’m certain this would work as well with milk chocolate, white chocolate, (butterscotch chips??), etc. Add a little pinch of cinnamon or cayenne for a little kick, or a drop or two of mint extract.

Yeah, pie, cakes, elaborate baked goods involving the freshest ingredients from the farmers market. Whatever. I can make my own magic shell chocolate sauce.

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Muffin, muffin, who’s got the muffin?

If I’m being honest, I’m really not a huge fan of sweets. I love to bake them for others, but given the choice between a cookie and a bag of chips, I’ll choose the chips three times out of four. But on that fourth time, I want something just sweet enough to satisfy the craving without going overboard.

Peeking

More often than not, this craving starts nagging in my ear about mid-morning (especially on days I’ve skipped breakfast, shame on me). So I go against my better judgement and stop by one of the ubiquitous coffee/bakeshops near my office and buy a muffin. I don’t know why, I always regret it: it’s a cupcake in everything but name, too sweet, too dense, too sticky (I really hate when the outsides stick to my fingers), too big, just too much.

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